Recognized today as a highly coveted and unique form of American folk art, wildfowl decoys represent what noted authority and author Robert Shaw terms in his most recent book, “An extraordinary response to a simple need.” Indeed they are. And nowhere is that more evident than in “Massachusetts Masters: Decoys, Shorebirds and Decorative Carvings,” an extraordinary exhibition at the Ward Museum of Wildfowl Art.
The exhibition captures the unending variety of wildfowl forms and spotlights the exemplary skills displayed by 19 of Massachusetts’s regional Nineteenth Century carvers. More than 100 examples, some extremely familiar to collectors and others being displayed for the first time, are on view in the museum’s LeMay Gallery through January 23.
The show is guest-curated by John Clayton, a member of the board of directors at the Ward Museum and also an established dealer and revered collector of New Jersey wildfowl decoys. Clayton commented that it was his intention to put forth “a landmark exhibit of historically significant decoys.” Categorized into four distinct areas, the more than 100 examples consist of some of the finest examples from the region. Also curating the exhibition is the Ward’s Cynthia Byrd, PhD. The exhibition is both comprehensive and well-planned.
After guest-curating two previous exhibitions at the Ward, “Decoys and Gunning Traditions of the New Jersey Shore” in 2008 and “The Decoys of Long Island” in 2009, Clayton said he was pleased to undertake this latest exhibit. “Because I was a New Jersey decoy collector, those exhibits came together rather easily for me,” he remarked. “I knew the carvers, the locations of the best examples and the state’s waterfowling history. Massachusetts, however, presented a new challenge,” he noted.
Stepping up to the challenge of working outside of his immediate area of expertise, Clayton has long been a part of the decoy collecting community and knew that he could depend on the close-knit group of friendly and supportive wildfowl enthusiasts. The competitive edge of various auctioneers and competing members of the trade quickly dulls when providing information and examples for an event of this magnitude.
Coastal Massachusetts has a long and intense history with waterfowling, attracting numerous species of local and migrating wildfowl, which during colonial times and for many years after provided a significant link in the local food chain. In days past, entire flocks of ducks would pass over the outlying coasts of Cape Cod, providing market gunners and sportsman alike with rich hunting opportunities.
Many of these gunners supplied the Boston markets with game and managed the many gunning stands owned by wealthy sportsmen. The islands of Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard also provided excellent waterfowl and shorebird hunting. Shorebirds, such as plover, snipe, peeps, curlew and yellowlegs, were also plentiful throughout the region and considered a tasty morsel throughout the Nineteenth Century.
The history of waterfowling and decoy carving in Massachusetts is as deep and rich as that of the commonwealth itself. Settled at Plymouth in 1620, the pilgrims established the Massachusetts Bay Company. With the help of the native population, the colony managed to survive the first winter without agricultural skills. Whether they used decoys at that time is open to speculation, since no written or physical evidence for them exists until much later. It is possible they used simple lures or even live decoys, but it is not until about 1850 that collectors can safely begin to document and identify decoys by various makers.
As early as 1727, the province passed an act to prevent the destruction of wildfowl. With the further incorporation of federal migratory waterfowl laws and the eventual outlawing of live decoys, the popular carved wooden decoy became an essential tool for waterfowlers around the country.
Massachusetts craftsmen, however, stepped up to the plate and went above and beyond many other regional carvers, creating uniquely detailed and exquisitely painted decoys that, even in their day, transcended the works from merely a utilitarian tool into a work of art.
This exhibition showcases the numerous species and the varied techniques carvers used, allowing for examination of the works of both well-known and unidentified carvers.
Clayton related that decoys, shorebirds and decorative carvings by noted Massachusetts carvers such as Elmer Crowell, Joe Lincoln, Keys Chadwick, Charles Hart, Lothrop Holmes and Charles Safford were culled from numerous private collections.
The decoys in the exhibition have been classified by the region in which the carver resided. Until recently, decoy collectors divided Massachusetts into three separate regions: the North Shore, the area north of Boston; the South Shore, the area south of Boston; and Cape Cod, which included the islands of Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket.
Collectors have recently added a fourth region stretching from the Cape Cod Canal to the Rhode Island border that is currently identified as the South Coast. Previously, it had been lumped together with the Cape Cod carvers; however, as information about its carvers and waterfowling history has emerged, the area has begun to be recognized separately.
For the most part, decoy carvers were also hunters, and stylistic traits evolved that suited their local hunting conditions. “Some similarities in style among regions are evident, but the decoys are more different than alike, showcasing a wide variety of techniques, sometimes even among birds by the same carver,” notes Clayton. “Decoys can be solid or hollow, with round or flat bottoms. Canvas-covered decoys are also found here, along with large slat geese called ‘loomers.'”
Both the duck decoys and shorebirds display an incredible array of head positions and attitudes, ranging from confidence birds in a sleeping or relaxed position to feeders. One example by Gloucester carver Charles Hart depicts a black duck in a standing pose that would have been positioned on the beach in front of the concealed hunters. With articulated wings attached to a string that when pulled would cause the wings to flap up and down, this decoy was an early attempt to create motion within the “spread.” A well carved, plump example in superb original paint, the rare decoy is considered to be among the finest carvings by Hart.
Massachusetts’s most famous decoy and shorebird carver is without a doubt East Harwichport’s Elmer Crowell. He is the subject of numerous books and perhaps the carver whose works have attained the most record prices paid at auction for decoys over the years. The Cape Cod carver’s talents extended beyond making working decoys into the world of decorative carvings, some of which are on view in the exhibition. Crowell, born in 1862, started carving miniature birds about 1882 for his own enjoyment. An avid hunter, Crowell was hired to manage a gunning camp for Dr John C. Phillips, who along with Dr John Cunningham, would become two of his most important patrons.
Over the years, Crowell carved many decoys for Phillips and his guests, now commonly referred to collectively as the Phillips rig. Many collectors consider them to be Crowell’s best work. Throughout his career he not only carved working decoys and shorebirds, but also full size and miniature decorative songbirds, shorebirds and waterfowl. Crowell’s birds are coveted for their natural, feathery, finely painted detail.
It is Crowell’s working birds that attract the lion’s share of interest, however, and this exhibition is filled with several of the finest birds he executed. Cataloged as “one of Elmer Crowell’s finest carvings,” a preening black duck with extended primary wing, carved speculum and chip carving under the tail was made for Stanley Smith in 1908.
Another exemplar of Crowell’s work is a turned-head preening canvas back drake made for Phillips. The decoy is one of only a few known examples with elaborately carved crossed wingtips and tail feathers.
Crowell shorebirds are also plentiful in the exhibition, highlighted by the trio of black-bellied plovers commonly known as the “Dust Jacket” birds. These black-bellied plovers combine Crowell’s legendary “detailed carving of wing and tail feathers with the bold, true paint pattern that made him a master,” according to decoy authority William J. Mackey Jr. The trio of black-bellied plovers, made circa 1900, received their nickname after appearing on the covers of books.
Kingston, Mass., carver Lathrop Holmes is also well represented with examples of both working decoys and shorebirds. A classic canvas covered old squaw decoy is representative of his working decoys, while a group of superbly carved shorebirds includes a ruddy turnstone, a black-bellied plover and a yellowlegs, all circa 1875.
A highlight linked to Holmes in the exhibit is a pair of folky mergansers carved by Clinton Keith, Kingston, Mass., circa 1910. A surveyor by trade, Keith was a Holmes nephew.
Numerous decoys from Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket are on view, including a wonderful pair of redhead decoys, considered by many to be the best known work by Vineyard carver Keyes Chadwick. Chappaquiddick carver Benjamin Pease is represented with a folky black duck.
Although known more as one of Nantucket’s premier whaling families, the Folger family was also known to produce a line of shorebirds that were sold to local hunters. A rare hollow carved golden plover with raised wings and a split tail on view was carved by either Franklin Folger or his son Franklin Jr.
Carvers from the newly identified region known as the South Coast include Edward Franklin Besse, a fisherman, boat builder and lifelong resident of Westport. Besse is known to have made several rigs of “flattie” shorebirds for his own use on East Beach, a short walk from his home. A “flattie” is a flat-sided decoy that was constructed from planklike pieces of wood with rounded edges. Besse is represented in the exhibition with a yellowlegs, circa 1900‱925, carved in a feeding position.
Another South Coast carver represented in the exhibition is Arthur Tuell, whose circa 1900 hollow carved hooded mergansers are on view.
“Massachusetts Masters: Decoys, Shorebirds and Decorative Carvings” is accompanied by a catalog of the same title compiled by Clayton and Byrd. Additional exhibits are on view at the Ward Museum in the Decoy Study Gallery and the World Championship Gallery, where winning contemporary decoys from the annual Ward World Championship Carving Competition are on display. The museum is named after the famed local carvers Lemuel and Stephen Ward. The Ward Brothers Workshop features the carvings of the Ward Brothers, tracing the development of their work and reproducing their barbershop studio.
The museum is at 909 South Schumaker Drive. For information, 410-742-4988 or www.wardmuseum.org .